The Censorship of RealityBY Vincent Daniels
Imagine having paid $14 for a premium movie on television, and settling yourself into a brand new reclining chair, microwaved-popped popcorn and can of soda in hand, and prepared to be entertained, only to endure the longest two hours of “bleep” after “bleep.” Was there a script behind those eardrum-shattering sound effects? Or were you just victimized by an overzealous censor who has replaced every word deemed “offensive” (a term subjective and undefined) with the aggravating “bleep”? If such censoring took place, you’d not only be too distracted by the liberal editing to enjoy the original artistic intention of the film, but also, you’d feel cheated because you’re not getting what you paid for. According to Ryan Heinrichs of the film-lover’s website Cityoffilms.com, director Martin Scorsese’s 1995 picture Casino holds a Guinness World Record for the most swear words featured in a film. The “F-bomb” is dropped 422 times, which is an average number of 2.4 times per minute (Heinrichs). Imagine hearing “bleep” 422 times. If the ubiquity of the f-word, so commonly overhead in random conversations on the street, made no impression on you as you watched the film in its original state, the modified or “cleaned-up” version would probably make you more aware of its presence. “Bleeping” a vulgar term only draws attention to it being there, which defeats the purpose of censorship, which is designed to drive out mental unpleasantness, rather than drive further into one’s consciousness (“censorship”).
Censorship is used to conceal offensive or politically incorrect images, words and phrases in books, television, music, movies, and other media. There are different ways of observing censorship, depending on the medium containing the questionable material. “Politically incorrect” terms that may be considered or even misconstrued as racially, sexually, or ethically wrong are often censored, as are words considered vulgar or impolite—the reprehensible “s-”, or “f-word,” for instance. When something is censored on the big screen or on television, the generic “beep” or “bleep,” is more than just time-consuming for editors and censors to record the soundtrack. It also means putting into a place a specific rating system designed by the Motion Picture Association of America in order to preserve the integrity of the original film while limiting exposure of questionable material to too-young viewers.
For instance, as aforementioned, Casino uses the “f” word over 400 times in its just-under three hours running time. Movies are now categorized based on the content so that children cannot watch a movie that is rated for adults. At the beginning of the twentieth century, “American cinema was subject to more than 40 local, city, and state censorship boards across the country,” and filmmakers had to tailor their movie to the requirements of each board or face being banned from that market” (“Ratings History”). If a movie-goer is paying to see a rated-R movie (a rating that already underscores a level of censorship, denying access to the film to those under a certain age and not accompanied by an adult), the person goes with the understanding that there is going to be questionable material, such as the frequent cursing, and that 400 “bleeps” may make the eardrum bleed, not to mention negate the purpose of a film-rating system.
These points aside, the reasons why censors may be necessary are because young children shouldn’t be hearing these offensive words. For example, the hit Fox television show Family Guy aired an entire episode entitled “PTV,” lampooning censorship. In the episode the mother, Lois, convinces the town mayor to start censoring television because she finds it “too offensive” for her baby boy. The show becomes comical when the government starts to censor the people’s lives outside of watching television. Government officials follow the people around, holding up black posters to censor out words or actions, such as using the bathroom, so that the show’s viewers cannot see these “offensive” behaviors. This hyperbolized example from a popular television show that, ironically, masquerades as a childish cartoon that is really meant for adults only, suggests the reality that once censorship begins, who knows where it will end?
Censorship has spread beyond film and television into the realm of literature, thus suggesting that even forms of entertainment considered “classic” are up for reevaluation. American writer Mark Twain defined a “classic” as “a book which people praise and don’t read” (qtd. in Schultz). His cheeky denotation conveys how it is to label a work of art without having experienced it for the self. Yet, close-readers will find that the oft-praised Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) just happens to be a classic novel strewn with terms today’s readers consider offensive. Classic novels often become staples of the classroom because they reflect a part of history as integral to American identity as an historical document or text-book. Nevertheless, censorship is found and used frequently in our society in altering such fictional sources, and such censoring may keep us from confronting reality. According to book reviewer Mark Schultz in “Upcoming NewSouth ‘Huck Finn’ Eliminates the ‘N’ Word,” Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books publishers plan to release a version of Huckleberry Finn, that does away with the “n” word (as well as the “in” word, “Injun”) by replacing it with the word “slave.” Including in the table of contents, the term appears in Huck Finn 219 times. “This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind,”’ says Gribben before adding, ‘“Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century”’ (Schultz). So much for the First Amendment, which is supposed to guarantee freedom of speech. How can censorship purport to protect American citizens while simultaneously denying them their national rights? In other words, censorship is a force that is only enforced at the expense of depriving people of other, perhaps more pertinent, rights.
Nevertheless, in many ways, censorship is popular in our newfound culture. Parents are becoming stricter and different cultural backgrounds and races are less tolerant with the way words and phrases are thrown around with as much frequency as “a,” “an,” and “the.” Our cultural changes may occur due to our evolving approach to art and the application of censorship in general. Our society has become careless in how words, phrases, and actions are used in daily activities. A word is just a word and it’s not going to cause any physical harm but it’s the moral and mental lives that are attempted to be protected. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, “censorship” means to have official supervision or absolute control of dramatic production and films. More “offensive” words are being absorbed into the vocabulary of the people. This is why parents become furious and lash out in protests because these words and actions are being introduced into their children’s lives at such an early age. In the study of the influence of motion-pictures upon restlessness in sleep which is in turn related to the health of children, Samuel L. Renshaw, Vernon L. Miller and Dorothy Marquis established that children are moved by pictures toward dislike for one social value and toward liking for another. If both facts and errors are learned and remembered, it is apparent that motion pictures have fundamental influences, which may be exerted in any direction (Cantril).
People of various cultures and ethnic backgrounds are offended by how loosely slurs are used. NewSouth Books made changes to Mark Twain’s novel because society is finding the content to be “offensive,” which is probably lowering their sales. If your company was losing money, wouldn’t changes have to be made? The book has also been changed because NewSouth Books did not want their reputation to be tarnished especially since the publication group is located in Alabama, which has a long history or racial and social tensions. Earlier this year, Newsweek featured the story in its column The Daily Beast, which explained that the new version is necessary because the novel has been slowly disappearing from grade school curricula across the country due to the repeated use of the “n” word (“New”). Even though Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a popular and well-known American classic, society has changed and finds its content to be unacceptable for the twenty-first century. Altering this novel was likely in the best interest of NewSouth Books in hopes of gratifying the people of this era and area. Schultz’s article also explains that Gribben has no illusions about the new edition’s potential for controversy: “I’m hoping that people will welcome this new option, but I suspect that textual purists will be horrified” (Gribben, qtd. in Schultz). The publishing company created a new edition with the idea of relating with the new people of society and keeps the American Classic on the market. Dozens of books have been banned and even burned before, and even though the original print version was replaced, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is still a story for the world to read.
Of course, we may wonder if being able to read a classic in schools and public thanks to a censored edition is a reasonable consolation: after all, is reading any version of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn better than reading no version at all? At least Twain’s novel did not wind up locked away in some school’s banned-book closet or, worse, simply heaped into the fires of book-burning groups (although, the book has suffered such a fate before) (“Book Burning”; “Beyond”). “Book burning” refers to the ritual destruction by fire of books or other written materials usually carried out in a public context (“Book”). The burning represents an element of censorship and usually proceeds from a cultural, religious, or political opposition to the materials in question. Huck Finn is a reflection of the late-nineteenth century American culture and racial tensions. Erasing the now-considered “racial slur” terms simply conceals our past wrongs, and if America doesn’t face our former mistakes and confront them people will never evolve as a society. We aim to be more “politically correct,” yet such correctness does not come from hiding reality behind what looks nicer. Papering over a hole in the wall hides the look of the hole but does not conceal the weakness in the structure of the wall.
The role of censorship should be to put in charge a group of federal officials—the FCC, for instance, and other like-minded groups—who are responsible for creating a unified rating system, which I support. There is a time and place for censorship, and while its motives may be warranted, such restrictions do not belong in television and movies. Likewise, books should retain their artistic integrity and historical value: they are narrative examples of the period in which they were written. Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was an American Classic for a reason. The over all themes of the story—a coming of age tale that actually reinforces an ecumenical and racially-sensitive relationship between young Huck and the slave Jim—was written in an era when it was socially acceptable to use the “offensive” or “politically incorrect” words that are frowned upon in our present society. The truth of the matter is that the new edition takes away from the reality of the original story. The “n-word” was used back then and had its own meaning. Hilton Als’ essay for The New Yorker, “More Harm than Good: Surviving the N-Word and Its Meanings,” explains that the n-word is derived from the Latin word for the color black. This words dates back to John Rolfe’s recorded journal in his first shipment to Africans to Virginia in 1619 when he listed them as “negars” (Als). How shortsighted it is of us to believe that no term can and should evolve, as a fluctuation in terminology-just look at each generation’s latest slang terms or the mutation of “gay” from meaning “happy” to “homosexual”-is part of cultural identity.
This society claims that it promotes change and campaign for it openly, as witnessed in Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street Movements; yet, censorship of books reveals that we secretly fear what change can do to our national identity. Just because it isn’t acceptable now doesn’t mean that a successful story like Mark Twain’s should be stolen from its spot in history. I believe in the original motives of censorship and its aims to protect the mental and psychic welfare of the young and sensitive, but censorship has grown excessive. This newfound low tolerance for such words, phrases, images, lyrics, and actions is just a way to change our society from becoming what it is: an evolving society progressing towards greater acceptance of once-taboo concepts, ideas, and people. Our society is changing. As did others of the past, I believe that censorship is out-stepping its true purpose, which should be to keep such actions and mature language from the younger members of our society.
Als, Hilton. “More Harm Than Good: Surviving the N-Word and Its Meanings.” The New Yorker. 11 Feb. 2002. Web. 3 Nov. 2011..
“Beyond Book Burning.” The Center for Media Literacy. n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2011..
“Book Burning.” United States Memorial Holocaust Museum. Ushmm.org, 6 Jan. 2011. Web. 31 Oct. 2011..
Casino. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, and Joe Pesci. Universal Pictures, 2005. Film.
Cantril, Hadley. “Review of ‘Motion pictures and youth: A summary’ and ‘Getting ideas from the movies.’” The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 29 (29 Jul. 1934). EBSCO Host. Web. 3 Nov. 2011.
“censorship, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press. Sept. 2011. Web. 23 October 2011.
Heinrichs, Ryan. “Casino (1995).” CityofFilms.com. 16 Feb. 2010. Web. 3 Nov. 2011..
“New Huck Finn Cuts ‘N’ Word.” The Daily Beast. Newsweek Corporation. 4 Jan. 2011. Web. 31 Oct. 2011..
“PTV.” Family Guy. Fox Network. 6 Nov. 2005. Television.
“Ratings History: Safeguarding Artistic Freedom.” Mpaa.org. Motion Picture Association of America, Inc. 2011. Web. 3 Nov. 2011..
Schultz, Marc. “Upcoming NewSouth ‘Huck Finn’ Eliminates the ‘N’ Word.” Publishersweekly.com. Publishers Weekly, 03 Jan. 2011. Mon. 31 Oct. 2011..